By Dr. Fatin Morris Guirguis
Dr. Moris Guirguis is professor, English Faculty, Polk State College. This article was presented on June 13, at the Coptic Solidarity Sixth Annual Conference held in Washington D.C.
Identity formation is a topic that is as wide as the width of each individual life. Identity shapers are everything that an individual comes in contact with since conception and until death; it encompasses name, genetics, place, history, family, friends, school, society, religion etc Language is of course a bedrock element in the establishment of group identity. Spolsky, in the context of second language learning, has noted the central role of language in identity formation and has demonstrated that speakers of a language can infer much more than regional affiliation when hearing someone speak: they can often correctly define gender, education level, age, place of origin, and sometimes even the profession of the speaker. He concludes that this ability to infer so much from phonemes themselves explains, at least in part, why language is such a powerful symbol of national and ethnic identity (181). The late Mexican-American activist Gloria Anzaldúa summed up language-identity fusion when she wrote in La Frontera that ―Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language‖ (81). And certainly, colonial powers have long realized that the language of those they colonize provides a potent space of resistance through which national (or group) identity is formed and reproduced and that’s why they target it.
I want to start with a personal story, one that recurs too often and each Copt here must have experienced:
I would be in the midst of a discussion with someone in English. Suddenly my phone rings: my mom. I speak to my mom in my quote unquote “native” language or “mother” tongue. The person I am speaking with asks which language is the one that I was using with my Mom. Keeping Spolsky in mind that person wants to know where I am originally from assuming that by identifying my language, he or she will be able to identify my origins and build the rest of the associations needed to “know me.”
I fully understand the purpose of the question but the answer I am about to give although true will actually lead to a misidentification and to the opposite of what I want him/her to know about me.
The answer is I am speaking to my Mom in Arabic but I am not of Arab origin. I am a Copt. I am Egyptian. The Arabs persecuted the Coptic language and forced us to speak Arabic but I am Coptic. I just lost the Coptic language because I couldn’t help it, but everything else in me is Coptic. My identity is Coptic.
All this goes in my mind and finally I decide what am I going to say; I will tell that person that I speak Arabic and follow with a brief …or long… history lesson about who the Copts are and the history of persecution.. a difficult task.. It brings to mind Hamlet’s words “O cursed spite.. that ever I was born to set it right.” To tell the story of the Copts, is to right the wrongs of history- what’s worse is that you have got to tell the story and right the wrong one person at a time.. what an unfair and a daunting task for every Copt. How many would rather choose to “pass” as Greeks, Italians, anything to avoid this daily identity challenge. One would rather be identified with any culture that is closer to one’s values and one’s beliefs than to be associated with a culture that made it their objective to persecute you and erase your values, history, art, culture, faith.. your very existence.
Amin Maalouf, in his 2000 book, In the name of identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, specifically refers to the influence of one‘s religious community and traditions in the construction of identity:
Each one of us has two heritages, he says, a “vertical” one that comes to us from our ancestors, our religious community and our popular traditions, and a “horizontal” one transmitted to us by our contemporaries and by the age we live in. He says and I quote “It seems to me that the latter is the more influential of the two, and that it becomes more so every day. Yet this fact is not reflected in our perception of ourselves, and the inheritance we invoke most frequently is the vertical.
i.e. ancestors/community/tradition. Karl Marx’s work contributed to a major change in conceptions of identity formation; he shifted focus from the model of autonomous Cartesian individualism to social production by asserting in the first part of his preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy that ―It is not the consciousness‘ of men that determines their being, but on the contrary their social being that determines their consciousness. For later generations of Marxist theorists, concern focused on this Marxian notion of social being. Louis Althusser follows by defining the subject‘s construction through ideology as the set of ideas that makes sense of society and through which unequal relations are reproduced; those who are in power produce and circulate the ideas about how a society perceives itself (104-7). A persecuted society can only resist this by counter-narrative
Today I want to focus on Coptic identity formation politics and problematics.
Let me introduce myself, I am Fatin Morris, I am a Copt, a professor of oral literatures and of their role in resisting persecution. I spent a good part of my life studying how a doomed culture and language like the Coptic still exists and found that orality was the saving grace of a nation that invented writing when it was threatened with cultural annihilation. The Coptic tradition of orally handing down history, religion and culture is the reason of its existence today. Oral narratives are repositories of historical identity and in their oral transmission they preserve and help shape today’s Coptic identity. Additionally, these repositories of identity work as resistance locations of counter-narratives stored in the communal Coptic memory and used to counter-act the erroneous narratives producing by the persecuting powers against them.The rest of the paper will be a tour that demonstrates how narratives change and why is it important for mankind to show solidarity with the Coptic identity and to help preserve it.
Let’s take a quick historical glimpse and compare two pieces written on the Copts in different periods. The first one was written in the 19th century
Gaston Weit (1877-1971) studied and compared the effects of Roman and Arab persecution on the Copts. He argued that the Copts were not subjected to physical persecution during the early centuries of Arab domination and that their conversion to Islam was due to economic reasons. Without the benefit of modern postcolonial studies, which explains the effects of cultural persecution, Weit was unable to reconcile Coptic martyrdom during Roman persecution with their conversion to Islam as a result of heavy taxation. He concluded that the Copts‘ Christianity was simply superficial, and explained away early martyrdom under Diocletian as a suicidal oddity. ([i]) Lapidus and Little confirmed Weit‘s thesis.
Fast Forward – two centuries later – two months ago..Glenn Beck April 8th, 2015
Thoughts on what is happening with the Coptic Christians. (Coptic = Egyptian) He quotes from Isaiah 19:20-24 …19In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD near its border. It will become a sign and a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt; for they will cry to the LORD because of oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Champion, and He will deliver them. Thus the LORD will make Himself known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day. They will even worship with sacrifice and offering, and will make a vow to the LORD and perform it
Glenbeck continues and I quote –
I read this not too long ago when ISIS beheaded the Copts in Libya. It hit me like a truck. There’s something special about the Copts that I can’t quite put my finger on. They’re similar to the Jews in that they stand surrounded…defiant…and yet they don’t flinch. I love and admire them for that. What courage and devotion. It doesn’t get any clearer than this verse. At some point God gets tired of this and he intervenes. In verse 23 it goes on to say that Egypt and Assyria will be connected, and that the Assyrians will go to Egypt for protection and to worship alongside them. In verse 24 it says that Israel, Egypt and Assyria will be a “blessing in the midst of the earth”.[ii]
Ok… from being superficial Christians to a blessing. What happened? What changed the Western World’s mind? Why did the Copts suddenly become world famous, looked up to, respected, etc
This is what happened: On February 15, ISIS released a five-minute video showing the beheading of the twenty one Coptic captives on a beach somewhere in Libya along the southern Mediterranean coast.
Another oral narrative identical to the ones that fill the pages of the Coptic synaxarium, their book of history, but there is a difference; this one was a televised oral narrative. It gained worldwide audience. Is that what it takes to put the Copts back on the map to know their identity, to restore their dignity, to retrieve their past and to tell their real narrative and to find audience willing to hear it because it has value not only to them but to the world?
What’s in an oral narrative and what has it got to do with identity? Let me talk my research lingo for a while..
Oral studies, an amazing relatively new field of literature, defines an oral narrative as a performance because the narrator aims at engaging the audience. ISIS chose the media of the video, an oral narration, a live performance in a sensory form, which by definition is participatory in nature. Its performance is based upon a participatory audience who will applaud, abrogate, fear or embrace the performance. When ISIS chose the Copts as their victims, unwittingly they engaged the Coptic cultural and identity narrative as much as they engaged their own narrative. They gave the Coptic identity audience. The whole world participated abrogating ISIS and applauding the Copts.
Dennis Tedlock, in his 1983 The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation, explains that one has to learn how to interpret the performance in the terms of the culture that produced it (Tedlock 15 and passim). He notes that voice quality, volume control, intonation, and silence are key elements of the performative experience and need to be decoded. Foley, another big name in the field of Oral theory demands that the “specialized” language employed in composing oral traditions be read by culture experts who are culturally fluent. His theory builds on ethnopoetics, a field which highlights the importance of ethnic reading of oral compositions. A cultural expert will be able to decipher the messages of the oral performance through his knowledge of the cultural identities involved.. Foley explains that the ideology of these cultures is accessible through formulaic phrases and metonyms a sort of short hand language; such phrases used in the narration will act as switches, keys, or even hyperlinks that open huge cultural ideological files. For example the word “infidels’ a favorite of ISIS works as a hyperlink to inspire abrogation of non-Muslims among ISIS supporters. On the other hand, and the word “martyrs” works as a hyperlink to Coptic religious ideology of grace through suffering. More on this later.
ISIS performance was manipulated to send certain meanings with certain significance that represent its ideology, culture, and identity.
For example, the main message was the supremacy of Islam as a faith over other religions and its power to annihilate those who reject it- that’s an accurate representation of ISIS ideology.
The message of dominance and power was portrayed when ISIS executioners were made to look much taller, much bigger than their Coptic victims whom they led them at the edge of the sword like sheep. They stood tall. The Copts knelt at their feet while they chopped their heads off. They mixed their blood with that of the Mediterranean Sea.
The same narrative read through the Coptic identity lens showed what scholars label as a “counter-narrative.” ISIS executioners, dressed in black are evil cowards who cover their faces in shame of their act and in fear of world justice and retribution. The Copts went to their death with open eyes, peaceful faces, lit with faith, looking upwards expecting eternal life. There was no fear of death, no screams no tears, although they were all young and almost all had families and little children. The Copts and the rest of the civilized, still human world who also participated in the performance by abrogating it, read the Coptic counter-narrative with ease.
The oral performative experience tapped an even deeper emotional experience by virtue of its association with its physical location. The killings were staged on the Mediterranean shore in the closest location to Rome, the seat of the Catholic church as the ISIS narrator proclaimed threats to the Western Christianity world bringing to the mind of ISIS supporters the Arab conquests of the Islamic era when Tariq Ibn-Ziyad successfully led the Arabs across Gibraltar and conquered Spain i.e. the West and brought it to its metaphorical knees. The carefully staged performance of the use of swords in the twenty first century to carry public the killing of the Copts is obviously intended as a “metonym” another hyperlink that resonates with their supporters and help them access this history.
In stark contrast, the Mediterranean Sea n the Coptic mind is associated with the Coptic Seat of St Mark of Alexandria and of the martyrdom of the many Coptic saints in that city where St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt, established its apostolic church, was tied to a tail of a horse and dragged to his death on its Mediterranean streets. In this the Copts read a glorious past of strong faith and salvation that they are proud of and happy to share with the world.
To sum up, Patrick J. Geary, noted medieval historian, who studied in detail the relationship between narrating the past and authority, affirms that those who are able to tell the past acquire authority over the narration because they can tell the story from their perspective. In preserving their history, they ensured that it would continue to live into the present, and function as an element of everyday life.
Formulaic words and epithets like “Allah Akbar” and the “Infidels” contextualize the brutal public executions in a religious narrative as an act to be proud of, protected by the word of God, and representing the justice of the most high.
The Copts recognized the victims as martyrs. To the Copts the word “martyrs” accesses 2100 years of history of resistance and resilience. Their narrative wasadded them to the Coptic synaxarium. A church dedicated to them is being built in their village. Their families rejoiced because they didn’t recant their faith out of fear of death. Their village became the center of media attention. They became a living incarnation of Coptic identity
Some of the Copts including myself were excited to have a living documentary of martyrdom of which our history book is full but we never had the chance to witness one. Each one would ask himself/herself, if I were in this position would I be able to hold on, or will I deny my faith for fear of death. Our modern martyrs demonstrated to us that it is still doable. It is just one second and it is over.
The video that was meant to bring the infidels to their knees actually reinforced the identity of the Copts. Accepting death, resisting evil, holding on, not wavering are all aspect of a deeply historic Coptic identity which believes that 210 days of fasting a year although excessive are a good spiritual exercise, that long liturgies, forgiveness, of those who hurt us and rejoicing in their own faith despite poverty, adversity, and persecution is Coptic.
Not only did they die with dignity, not only did they exhibit a tenacity of faith, and the strength that makes life worth living. They embodied heroism, courage, love, faith, hope .. They embodied the best in human nature.. They embodied the Coptic identity that we are so proud of and so keen on defending against persecution and against erosion. An identity that we want our children to continue to carry and to pass to their children to continue the Coptic tradition of handing down this tenacity that makes humans special.
I want to end with a story.. I have a 16 year old daughter fully assimilated daughter and when she is asked to write about her identity, she used to avoid writing about being Coptic because no one knows who the Copts are. After ISIS video was released, I wanted to tell my daughter about what happened.. “her answer was “ I sure do know.. we talked about it in school all day in the history and in the English class.. Do they know your identity.. Yes they know I am a Copt. I told them who I am.
My question to you: Is the Coptic identity worth saving.. I will let you be the judge
Photo: Egyptian Coptic Christians hold a cross high in Cairo’s Tahrir square on February 06, 2011. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images), via Hudson.org
[i]) His thesis is most succinctly stated in his article on Copts (―Kibt‖) in the first edition of the E_n_c_y_c_l_o_p_e_d_i_a_ _o_f_ _I_s_l_a_m_ _(1960); it also appears earlier and in more detailed form in his L_’E_g_y_p_t_e_ _A r_a_b_e_:_ d_e_ _l_a_ _c_o_n_q_u_êt_e_ _A_r_a_b_e_ _à _l_a_ _c_o_n_q_u_êt_e_ _o_t_t_o_m_a_n_e_ _(Paris, 1937).
Using postcolonial ideology, unpublished resources like suppressed Coptic accounts of martyrdom, Tamer El-Leithy argues against Weit‘s theory and its supporters exposing Arab cultural persecution practices proving Coptic resistance and agency. He convincingly argues that the Copts were very slow to convert compared to other nations like Iran. See El-Leithy 13-20 and passim.